Can we design a truly inclusive accessibility icon?

It’s one of the best-known symbols in the world. Used in airports, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, offices, bathrooms, and parking lots around the world, it still somehow goes unnoticed by many people.

It’s the symbol for universal access, the icon that represents inclusive design for people with physical disabilities. First conceived as an empty wheelchair by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed as part of a 1968 competition sponsored by the United Nations and the International Standards Organization, the symbol wasn’t widely used until 1990, when George W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and made it official.

But a lot has changed in the past 20 years, and in 2010 artist and design researcher Sara Hendren and philosophy professor Brian Glenney wanted to draw attention to the symbol as a way to address issues around inclusivity. They launched the Accessible Icon Project in order to introduce a new icon that features a more dynamic figure—one that aimed to portray individuals with physical disabilities in a new light.

“At first, Sara created a clear orange sticker designed to be placed on top of the original icon, to clash with it, so that people would see the differences immediately,” says designer Tim Ferguson Sauder, who joined the project to help bring the icon in line with the Department of Transportation’s ISO DOT 50 standards, “an approach that, in many ways, opposes Sara’s original goal,” he says. “I’m trying to make it feel like it’s part of that family, so an airport in France, Russia, or Greece will consider using it, to extend the conversation to those countries, so people will notice the difference and think about it. It’s a tension that we’ve talked about quite a bit—one that’s inherent in any project that communicates messages about people.”

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Accessibility icon design, via “Abler”

But if the founders of the Accessible Icon Project were interested in making their symbol official, it would need to be reviewed by the U.S. Access Board, a government agency that makes recommendations regarding ADA regulations, mostly recently in 1991 and 2004. (Agency spokesperson Dave Yanchulis says there are no immediate plans for another review.)

The Department of Justice and Department of Transportation then review those recommendations and determine how they’ll be applied. The process isn’t exactly speedy. The 2004 regulations didn’t go into effect until 2012, starting with an 18-month window when businesses and government offices were able to apply either standard. If the icon were to change, facilities wouldn’t be required to replace their signage immediately, but would only be expected to use the new standard as new signs were added or replaced. (When the ADA was passed in 1990, the federal government adopted the ISO designation for the symbol, but if that group were to adopt a new icon, the federal government would be under no obligation to follow suit.)

Under the legal concept called “equivalent facilitation,” the new dynamic icon is legally permitted if it offers “equal or better accommodation” for the audience in question. It’s difficult to say if the work of the Accessible Icon Project meets that criteria until a court rules on the matter, but because the new icon follows the original design so closely in terms of color and shape, some experts believe it would be allowed. The state of New York and the U.S. Department of the Treasury have already installed signs featuring the new icon, but in May 2015, the Department of Transportation declined to adopt the symbol, noting that it was not “unmistakably similar” to the original.

In spite of the icon’s adoption by several non-government groups, like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Nissan’s “Taxi of Tomorrow,” as well its inclusion in two exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, the members of the Accessible Icon Project insist that universal adoption was never the goal.

“People have strong opinions on the mark, from within and beyond the disabilities community,” says Sauder. “Our response has always been, ‘You’re right—this isn’t the best version of the icon.’ Our greatest hope is that this causes a conversation and positive change in people’s actions and attitudes towards others. That outcome could be someone coming up with a much better logo, and we’re excited about the idea that other people might create something even better because we definitely don’t feel as though we’re done, as if we’ve solved it.”

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Accessibility icon design, via “Abler”

There’s a lot of baggage to unpack for the designers ambitious enough to take on the icon’s redesign. “I’ve thought about what an accessibility symbol might look like if I were creating it from scratch,” Sauder continues. “But when you’re dealing with one of the most recognized symbols in the world and you’re working with city and state governments there’s a trade off: do you do something that will be recognized and will actually help people find out where to park, or do you do something that’s truer to the reality and perhaps more abstract, but so far afield that it really couldn’t be used without some major educational component? It became clear that a refinement would allow us to continue the work started by the old mark, and the evolution continues.”

“I think we were right to end up with an image that could be distributed widely and used as a new icon,” Hendren wrote in her blog, Abler. “But the graphic is not the destination of the work. The destination is a thousand invisible—and, I hope, eventually visible—acts of structural and cultural change: in global rights, in abuse prevention, in meaningfully inclusive schools and workplaces. The hard stuff—friction, a willingness to embody and suspend un-resolve—these are essential to making the icon count for rights, for substantive change. I remain against re-branding, and eagerly look for the messy, hard slog of change to come.”

“At end of day, we hope things change,” says Sauder. “We hope architects have accessibility in the forefront of their minds. Our goal isn’t to make every sign look like our icon; our goal is to change how the world is built and how people are afforded access to spaces.”

AIGA is currently in the process of updating its Symbol Signs resource, a set of passenger/pedestrian symbols available to use free of charge, with an aim to include an accessibility icon this summer.

Learn more about the project at Sara Hendren’s site, accessibleicon.org and Tim Ferguson Sauder’s design portfolio site, asmallpercent.com.

About the Author:

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, CO, with a focus on the outdoors, nonprofits and "do-gooder" companies. He is also a frequent contributor to HOW Magazine and AIGA design blogs.